Supplying the Planks for Safe Passage to Adulthood

Joseph Diament
March 1, 1998

Safe Passage.

Joy Dryfoos.

Oxford University Press. $27.50

Joy Dryfoos continues her long tenure in the youth development and advocacy field with a thoughtful, easily readable, well-documented call for a Safe Passage movement. It is the lack of cynicism and its ever present companion, optimism, that endears the reader to this book. One is reading the life work of a passionate youth advocate who has lived through several of America’s recent traumas and recoveries. Joy Dryfoos believes that we should, can and will do better for the generations to come.

The book’s goal is to make the safe passage to adulthood the expectation for all young people, not just the privileged few. She hopes to accomplish this by celebrating youth work through spelling out in great detail much of the work and research that has been done, thereby raising the consciousness of the general public.

While eminently worthy of pursuit, this goal also points out the book’s weakness. Safe Passage’s most likely audience consists of people taking courses in social welfare/policy, adolescent development and education, not exactly the general public. Nevertheless, this book can be somewhat invigorating for those already engaged in positive youth development and informative for newcomers.

Safe Passage does a disservice by perpetuating the mythology of parental involvement in the governance of schools (usually couched as empowerment), particularly in poor communities. People are most likely to participate in the governance of their communities when they have the time, energy and means to do so. Working parents who are poor are frequently holding down more than one job or working many hours. Where is their time and energy to come from to participate in school governance?

How are the working poor to be on par with one of the most powerful and activist political forces (teachers’ unions) for resources and authority? Safe Passage schools and communities may become a reality when the progressive ideology that led to the organizing of teachers’ unions reestablishes itself as a community change agent rather than an agent of the status quo.

Ms. Dryfoos offers a good, rational, and somewhat academic review of youth work/development, and is quite candid about her own biases. (The latter is particularly refreshing in light of works by the likes of Charles Murray whose ideologically biased reasoning leads to opposition to social investment.) We are reminded by Dryfoos that public support for youth development initiatives is enmeshed within the greater debate about the role of government in financing social change or improvements. The author is a firm believer in such investment especially when programs are shown to work. She points out that poverty is still the single greatest determinant of successful youth development, and that poverty is disproportionately evident in communities of color. This is particularly significant in light of demographic trends that will soon make Caucasian youth a minority group in the United States. The implicit question therefore becomes: do we want the majority of youth and young adults at the turn of the century to have significant developmental deficits?

Schools Not Ready for Present

The book’s core premise is that schools in particular and communities in general are not organized to meet the needs of contemporary children, youth and families. The premise is affirmed by a review of progress (and lack thereof) in prevention programming for substance abuse, delinquency, pregnancy and HIV/AIDS. Dryfoos reminds the reader that in most instances, despite varying labels, the effort is targeted at the same youth. The main reason for the categorical difference has more to do with funding streams and/or the gates through which particular youth enter the youth service or development system than substantive differences in the needs of youth.

Not surprisingly therefore, another major theme in Safe Passage is that comprehensive approaches are the ones to be undertaken. Dryfoos is a strong advocate of schools as the conceptual and physical focal point of education and all other necessary community services. Her ideal or “Safe Passage” school would:

  • foster excellent cognitive abilities including critical thinking and reasoning skills,
  • provide health services including, substance abuse counseling, mental health treatment and dental care,
  • emphasize and support the vital role of parents or other responsible adults in the lives of youth,
  • enable entry into the labor force through incentives, vocational training and support, and
  • be available to the community from early morning through evenings.

The reader will find Dryfoos willing to take on unproven sacred cows like D.A.R.E., but her candor extends to admitting that sometimes comprehensive efforts like the Casey Foundation’s progressive New Futures Initiative also did not show marked or documented success. Her review and analysis is a great basis for grant writing and program design especially for those who are newer to the field. In fact, one of the book’s main assets is its list of references and footnotes.

Joseph Diament is CEO of Odyssey House, a drug treatment program for youth in Hampton, N.H.

Diament, Joseph. "Supplying the Planks for Safe Passage to Adulthood." Youth Today, March/April 1998, p. 36.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.